Room 3: Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra
14 February 2013 – 28 April 2013
Height: 43 cm (without fringe)
Width: 25 cm
Museum number: Af1886,1126.1
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Sherbro district, Sierra Leone, 1886
A distinctive type of wooden helmet mask worn by senior members of the female Sande Society in Sierra Leone.
This sowei mask was collected by Thomas J Alldridge for display at the Colonial and Indian exhibition in London in 1886. Alldridge was a prominent figure in the expansion of British colonial interests in Sierra Leone but he also had a genuine interest in local customs, practices and masquerade traditions.
Among the Mende people of Sierra Leone, the Sande society is a women’s association traditionally entrusted with the moral education of young girls in preparation for adult life. Masquerade plays an important part in Sande initiation. The masked performer is known as ‘the sowei who dances’ (ndoli jowei) and appears in public on specific occasions prompting lively celebrations. She wears a black-stained helmet mask and a black-dyed raffia and cloth costume which completely conceal her identity.
Although this mask bears much of the customary iconography seen on other sowei masks: blackened surface, small facial features, prominent forehead and elaborate hairstyle it has an extraordinary feature in the form of a Western-style top hat.
At the time this mask was collected at the end of the nineteenth century imported items of Western clothing were used by members of the Sierra Leonean elite as symbols of status and power. At the same time Europeans eagerly collected African masks and displayed them in museums as examples of exotic ‘otherness’. This two-way interpretation of a single object questions the impact of the cultural contact between colonised and coloniser.
Each mask has an individual personality and is given a name which is revealed in a dream. For many years the name of this mask was lost. However, in a special ceremony in January 2013 members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London gave the mask a new name: Gbavo, meaning ‘crowd-puller’ or ‘to attract people’s attention’. The newly-named mask was then formally re-presented to the British Museum.
T. J. Alldridge, A Transformed Colony, London: Seley & Co Ltd, 1910
T. J. Alldridge, The Sherbro and its Hinterland, London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1901
Ruth B. Phillips, Representing Women: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone, Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995